February 3 - 17
Welcome to the Dispatch for February 3 − 17!
This week: Chuck Hagel makes history, Syrians want to talk, French want to leave, North Koreans want attention, and Venezuela wants a President, preferably a living one.
After a long and contentious debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved Chuck Hagel’s nomination to Secretary of Defense. The victory was short-lived, however: two days later, Senate republicans filibustered the nomination, the first time ever a candidate for Secretary of Defense has been blocked. By Sunday, the opposition seemed to have eased, though: both Lidnsey Graham and John McCain (who had initially opposed a filibuster) said they would end their attempts to block the nomination.
Senate Republicans said they were opposed to the quick vote on Hagel’s nomination and that they needed more time to get answers to their questions about Hagel. The White House nominated Hagel largely because he’s a former Senator - they had hoped to avoid exactly this scenario. Historically, Congress has been reasonably deferential to the President to fill his own cabinet, but those days are obviously gone. Hagel’s troubles largely spring from some ill-advised comments he made about the “Jewish lobby” being too powerful; the groups aligned against him right now are almost exclusively pro- Israel organizations.
The Syrian opposition offered its backing to a surprise offer by Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, to negotiate with the Assad regime, offering Assad himself exile in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The group clarified its conditions on the 15th, saying that they would negotiate with the government, but not Assad himself or members of the military.
The government has not fully endorsed negotiations, though they have not rejected the notion outright either. The question is whether the opposition is cohesive enough to engage in real negotiations and to implement an agreement if one were reached.
French soldiers have secured most of Mali, despite occasional outbreaks of fighting. The militants have largely retreated into the deserts to the north of the country, though fears persist of their return. The French are pledging to hand over patrol duties to African forces under the auspices of a United Nations mission as soon as feasible.
There’s already signs the militants intend to wage some form of guerrilla warfare, though that’s a huge improvement over the open warfare they were waging a month ago. The big question is the future of the Malian government and the Malian army — both are in as bad shape as they were when this mess started, if not worse. The real challenge for Mali is twofold: first, solving the political crisis in Bamako, and second, figuring out some agreement with the Tuareg so this doesn’t happen again.
An interesting note: In the rubble of Timbuktu, the AP found a 10-page letter detailing Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb’s strategy in Mali, including an assessment of how they failed and a prediction that they would be driven from Mali by outside forces. The strategy is remarkably clear-headed and reasonable for a self-declared jihadi movement - which might explain why it doesn’t seem to have reached the fighters on the ground.
North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on the 11th, detonating a device estimated at around 6 kilotons. Governments around the world were quick to decry the test, and the South Korean government responded by demonstrating a new cruise missile with a range of over 600mi, long enough to hit nearly anywhere in the North.
The nuclear test is all bluster. Nothing else about the device is known except that it was around 6Kt and that the North claims it was a nuclear device. Whatever the talk from the rest of the world (including the UN), though, the only voice that matters now is China’s. The North Koreans are heavily dependent on China for food, fuel, and trade. The Chinese use North Korea both as a strategic buffer between themselves and the American-allied South Koreans and as a distraction to keep the West busy, and until the North becomes more trouble than it’s worth to Beijing, expect this sort of noise to continue. There’s some indication this line is approaching: the latest missile and bomb tests have been done in spite of Chinese orders to the contrary, signs the younger Kim is flouting China’s good will.
On the much, Much more speculative side, NightWatch notes the (unverifiable) reports of an Iranian delegation attending this test, as has apparently been the case in the past, and asserts that at this point the North Korean nuclear program is functionally the Iranian nuclear program. It’s an interesting point, and could help to reconcile some of the disparities in Iran’s nuclear posture: there’s no real sign they’re trying to build a bomb, but they’re building all the infrastructure to do so with no real apparent civilian nuclear power program. Outsourcing R&D to North Korea could give Iran a lot of political cover while still allowing them to build a bomb if they decide do so.
The Venezuelan government released photos of Hugo Chavez in his hospital bed in Cuba on the 15th, the first time the Venezuelan President has been seen since leaving for surgery on December 11th. Three days later, the government flew Mr. Chavez back into Venezuela and immediately moved him into a military hospital in Caracas. He has not been seen since.
Hugo Chavez’s entire political movement is built around the man himself, and it appears he is direly ill. His party has insisted he’s still running the country, but the opposition is insisting ever louder that he’s not fit to lead and new elections should be held. They have a point - when the best you can say is “He’s adjusting to the breathing tube nicely,” well, it’s time to face facts. Nobody in Venezuela’s government has either the popular support or the credibility of Chavez: if he goes, “Chavismo” and the entire ruling political structure of the last decade goes with him.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!